Wakenhyrst, by Michelle Paver, is loosely woven around facts and folklore from rural Suffolk and a supposedly enlightened England. Many of the attitudes and behaviours depicted were still pervasive in the not too distant past. The author has located the titular hamlet close to ancient fens that locals both enjoy and fear. Its church, St Guthlaf’s, was originally built in the Middle Ages. Much of the story is set in Edwardian times when a wealthy landowner and respected historian, Edward Stearne, ruled his family home, Wake’s End, with a stern hand (such Dickensian naming). The tale is told by his daughter, Maud, who by 1966 was the only survivor and lived as a recluse in what was by then a house in disrepair.
The book opens in this later time with a journalist visiting Maud to try to learn more of a murder she witnessed as a teenager that led to her father’s incarceration at Broadmoor. Written in tabloid style, the short exposition is followed by a series of letters between Maud and an art historian, Dr Robin Hunter, who is eager to access a notebook in which Edward Stearne may have written about his inspiration for famous paintings he produced while locked away in the asylum. Maud has no wish to have anything more to do with the outside world after her experience with the journalist. It is only when a violent storm puts her home at risk that she agrees to tell Dr Hunter about her childhood and the events that led to her father’s undoing.
Maud’s story opens in 1906 when she is six years old. Her beloved mother has gone into labour, a regular event that often leads to a baby born dead. Maud has just the one sibling, Richard, who she regards with contempt. Her handsome father is a pious man whom she fears but longs to impress. Maud’s childish beliefs are coloured by the church’s teachings and the tales told of the fen by household servants. As God has not listened to her pleas for help, she prays to the fen that her mother may survive.
St Guthlaf’s church contains gorgoyles, sculptures and carvings that date back to medieval times. These include animals, mythical creatures and devils intended to warn sinners to repent. Much of the church’s vivid artwork would have been painted over by the Puritans. When Edward donates a sizeable sum of money to enable improvements to the building he unwittingly unleashes forces in the form of an historic mural known as a Doom.
Maud is starved of affection and pours out her love on an injured magpie that she sets free but continues to feed. The only animals her father will tolerate are the horses required to pull his carriage. Rebelling against the strictures enforced by Edward’s many rules, Maud takes to wandering the fen, something he forbids. There is suggestion of an event from his childhood that led to him hating and fearing the place.
As the years pass Maud must cope with grief and the impossible love she feels for a young gardener in her father’s employ. Being female she is regarded as lacking sense, despite her obvious intelligence. Her father allows her to help him with menial tasks in his work but assumes she is incapable of comprehension. Maud secretly reads the journals he keeps and is appalled to discover his true nature, and where this leads.
Journal entries are included verbatim throughout the text. The window this offers into the attitudes of an Edwardian gentleman are disturbing. When Edward becomes obsessed and potentially dangerous, Maud finds she has nowhere to turn – her concerns repeatedly dismissed as hysteria. Her father is affected by the doom and the fen, by his guilt and knowledge of church history. Maud soon realises how precarious her situation is.
The author taps into the shadows and cracks that generate fear in the dark even rational minds struggle to dismiss. As the story progresses these elements build providing an undercurrent of unease. It is not so much what is true that matters as what is believed and feared.
The effects of class and gender divides offer a stark background for a beguiling tale of arrogance and misdirected fervour. At its heart though is a story of a house and a fen, each emanating secrets and rich histories that colour the lives of inhabitants across generations. Whilst not quite as tightly woven and therefore on par with the author’s previous work – the spellbinding Dark Matter – this was a compelling and creepy tale that I enjoyed reading.
Wakenhyrst is published by Head of Zeus.
My copy of this book was borrowed from my local library.